A Tale of Two Swamps – Entering the village

The clump of trees had resolved itself into a cluster of houses.  Well I say houses.  From this distance they looked more like Mongolian Yurts.  Our boatman cut his speed as we approached the first of these and we chugged past these as the  channel extended deep into the village centre.  After seeing a few isolated huts; probably store rooms, I realised the village itself was on a raised muddy island in the middle of the flooded grasslands.  Perched on slightly higher grasses, but still with their feet in the water, hefty cattle obviously content in water ambled in front of the boat and peered at us with dull eyes.  While the majority of the village was in one large island and densely packed, we made our way to a second smaller island with just a small cluster of buildings, and I clocked there were several of these smaller “suburbs” dotted around the plain.

Here we were to meet out main contact in the village – a guy who works as the local liaison for the Fisheries Department and is secretary of the local fisherfolk association.  We had to cut the boat’s motor to reduce our wash, but there were eager people nearby who were willing to tow us in.  Unfortunately the one that reached us first was the town drunk; at least he was amiable but he both had a problem keeping upright waist high in water, and also wanted to talk extensively.  This might have been OK but his English was very limited and the conversation kept heading towards money and alcohol.  Eventually the other visitors prised his hands off our boat and we were safely delivered at the secretary’s house.   We were immediately invited in to his house – a long substantial reed walled house with tarpaulin roof.  Inside was one large room, subdivided with low walls into a sleeping area.  On top of all the clothes that the family owned – piled high as if ready for a jumble sale, was a reed mat covered in very small fish.  The smell in the house was also piscine; I supposed it mattered little that the odour must work its way into their garments as these villagers ate, caught, dealt with, sold, and of course excreted fishy products.  The smell of fish must be as normal as pot pourri in other houses.

As well as the fish stacked on the clothes, above the cooking hearth at the back of the hut were trays of more fish being smoked and cured.  They shrivel up so much as they dried that they look most unappetising, but in the absence of ice boxes and fridges in many villages this is often the only way to keep fish edible for more than a day.  The ice that ends up in the village is expensive and is preserved for use in selling valuable fresh fish to distant urban markets; where opinions about what food should look like are more sensitive than in rural Zambia.

A Tale of Two Swamps – Out on to the lagoon

The market was still going full pelt when we realised if we did not get going soon we would miss our appointment with the headman and his fishers at the little village across the lagoon, so reluctantly we weaved our way back to the Fisheries mooring site and piled in to a small aluminium flat bottomed boat.

A couple of the fisheries staff donned lifejackets but I saw the lake was near still, so just soaked in the scene of an almost dead flat landscape pricked apart by occasional stands of trees.  We picked our way backwards into the open water, then the captain opened up the throttle.  It was good to feel the wind against you at this late morning hour.  We navigated straight west across the lake, passing a few pirogues heading to and from the melee at the landing site.  For many minutes we crossed open water, but then I started to spot little clumps of grass poking above the lake surface.  Despite us being so far inland, the waves generated on the lagoon became choppy and the fisheries officers were happy they had their lifejackets on.  The grassy “outcrops” became much more frequent and higher and I noticed that I could see a layer of grass just a couple of feet below the surface of the water – indeed a couple of times I could hear grass scrape the boat’s bottom.  We spotted plenty of birdlife out on the open water and resting on little grassy islands in the lagoon – in some cases the islands were wholly nests.

 I was close to the front and saw a wall of long grasses poking up above the water – we were heading straight for them.  I could see no way through but as we approached a significant channel opened up- wide and clear and aiming away from the lagoon towards a distant clump of trees.  As we entered this channel,  I noticed there were carpets of white water lilies in amongst the grass, like a fantastically large ornamental pond stretching as far as the eye could see.  In a few places they clogged up our channel and we had to cut our way through hoping the outboard motor did not snag in the roots.

The Ankle Deep Sea – Out in to the lagoon

The next day, Jeremy and I worked with SHOALS to show them how to survey the marine resources.  We met them at their shed in Port Mathurin and drove back close to Cotton Bay where we hooked up with a fisherman who was to provide his boat to look at the northern part of our area.  He had arrived on his moped to meet us and continued to wear his helmet while he readied out boat.  His little blue pirogue contained two SHOALS guys, a couple of students from the University of Mauritius, Jeremy, myself and this little man in his helmet.  We managed to work around the choppy Baie De L’Est for about half an hour, then the outboard motor gave out.  As we drifted towards some ominous rocks the captain pulled out an oar and dug deep down.  He found some purchase and pushed us back.  There was no way we could continue our survey under these conditions so suffered the ignominy of being punted back to our port of embarkation.

Next day we travelled to Port Sud Est – a fairly sizeable community that relied on fishing in the lagoon and as a fairly high class residential area.  With another boat we were able to access the southern part of the pressure zone.  The problem was that the boat was over a kilometre from the main land.  The solution was provided by the nature of the lagoon; water is never that deep in Rodrigues so we started to wade.  And wade, and wade and wade and wade.  After about fifteen minutes we hauled ourselves into the boat, but the water was still only knee deep.  We managed to reach out across the lagoon very quickly and to be honest , it was pretty boring.  Yes it was crystal clear water and every natural habitat was amazing.  But there were no issues, it was a perfect, undisturbed natural environment.  Shh, don’t tell anyone, but Rodrigues was perfect.

Jeremy and I returned to Cotton Bay to report to Mike, who had had a busy day in Port Mathurin with the relevant agencies of the Rodrigues Regional Assembly.  He had also had a call from the Department of Environment staff wondering why I had been in the UK the week before, given I was supposed to spend the whole time in this country.  Mike had apparently put them straight, but the idea of quietly letting me visit my mum had dangerously backfired as it crossed this 90 day period limit.   As it was now sorted out, we spent a happy evening exchanging stories , sitting back in this tropical paradise and seeing how this was an example to the rest of Mauritius as to how to manage their coastal resources.  After several beers and a load of apocryphal stories, most of which both of my colleagues had already heard, I retired to bed, the windows open to let the Indian Ocean breezes in and the sound of the breaking waves send me to sleep.

Walking the Beaches – The other side of Le Morne

We broke off for the day when we hit the main road – there was not much left to do but we were not going to get it done in one session.  We waited quite a while for Keith to arrive (he had apparently taken a leisurely lunch at an Indian restaurant along the coast), and he drove us back to Calodyne.  It was the scariest thing that ever happened to me in Mauritius.  Keith talked and talked normally, but I had never experienced him driving  – we had tried to avoid him taking the wheel.  We now knew why – he continued to talk  (and look at us while he was talking)  and we had several near misses on the road back to Port Louis.  The worst was when he tried to slip into the traffic on the M2 heading into the city centre, right in front of a petrol tanker.  The screech of brakes and rubber on tarmac as the tanker swerved past us on the other lane, only just managing to find a gap between two cars, was too much.  We were glad to get to the office in one piece and we never let him drive us again.

Jeremy and I headed back to the Morne the next day to complete the survey.  We knew it would not take too long, but it was still an hour’s drive down there and we wanted to avoid the Port Louis traffic.  But once in le Morne area we decided we could take it a little easier.  We had worked bloody hard over the last couple of weeks, the sheer physical exertion of conducting both the sea and land surveys was sapping, so we started with a coffee in a little cafe in Black River before heading to pick up the survey route.

This section started with us traversing a hard pan of volcanic pebbles revealed by the low tide – like tamped hard core, and was remarkably easy to walk across.  A few drains and the occasional mangrove stand was all we saw.  Eventually we reached the village of Gaullette.  I’d driven down the main road next to Gaullette many times and seen the usual mix of half constructed villas, family homes, little shops and a couple of bars and restaurants, as well as the odd institution – the school , the police post.  It looked the typical Mauritian village.  But I had noticed  as you sped past on the tarmac that there were pathways into the trees and you go a glimpse of washing hanging out by tin shacks and children playing outside.

Now we were walking the coastline slowly we had time to see more detail.  While not the impoverishment of some African villages or city suburbs, this was at the bottom of the scale for Mauritius.  In most cases people were living in concrete buildings, but there were some that were roughly made and packed with people.  They were also built below the main village, right on the fringes of the coast.  Indeed because they were often spilled out onto this hard pebbly core, the tide would relentlessly come in and flood their compounds.  Some had attempted to build their own rudimentary defences.  Even the best ones, made of concrete walls, had gaps in that the water would just flood over.   The worst defences were made of brushwood and palm leaves and did little more than mark out the space.

People used the coastline as a refuse dump, not just for household waste but also fly tipping larger items, and, worst of all, their sewage flowed out of pipes at the edge of their plots onto the pan of the lagoon.  We had to pick our way carefully through several hundred metres of this, and once or twice we slipped in our steps and our trainers sank deep into the mud, the slime oozing over our uppers.

Despite this, there was some industry down here, fishing boats every so often, a boatyard or two (unfortunately their waste products also spilled into the lagoon).  I could not help but glance across the wide open stretch of the lagoon to the exclusive peninsula we were on the day before, and its sumptuous excess.  So many tourists would never see even a hint of the world we were exploring around the coastline of Mauritius.  Their experience of the Creole way of life was a highly sanitised one of people in highly coloured clean costumes dancing Sega, the local custom, of curious little artefacts that they can purchase in the foyers of their hotels without once stepping out on to the road or leaving the company of talkative tourist guides who will keep cheerful and informative but never be controversial.

Walking the Beaches – The mystery of the lagoon

When we eventually got out on the water looking for the algal mats that were the source of material on the strand line became a priority.  This coastline was a problem to navigate in; whereas elsewhere the lagoons were wide and extensive, here there were several rocky barriers that meant we had to use either different boats in each section or transport the boat by road from ramp to ramp to obtain full access.  Even so, one or two of the smaller lagoons at the southern end were inaccessible by any boat.  Also, the prevailing wind direction for Mauritius was from the south east at this time of year, which impacted strongly on the Belle Mare area; whereas Grand Baie had been sheltered, the outer reef was bashed by high waves almost continually, and where the reef was broken up by deep water gaps called passe, the currents rushed in causing a significant hazard for a small open boat.

Again we were lucky to use glass bottom boats, and had a charming Creole captain who was much more courageous and lagoon-savvy than his Grand Baie counterpart.  We were afraid we were going to find the whole lagoon smothered in a green algal covering, choking the reef to death.  On the satellite imagery I had interpreted there were large dark green areas throughout the lagoon and the characteristic colours and textures of reef were rarely present.

The nearshore area was sandy bottom, with the occasional rocky substrate, as we expected.  When we reached the first of these dark green areas, we were astounded.  Yes there was algae tangled around the reef but the reef itself was very much alive, and if anything expanding.  On the staghorn coral, at the ends of lots of little yellow branches appeared almost fluorescent blue patches of recent growth, and there were not just the large ancient stands of coral heads, but plenty of tiny baby corals starting to branch out.  In fact, it was the liveliest and most densely packed area of coral organisms I had seen anywhere in Mauritius. Tangled up amongst it was all this algae, though.

We trawled extensively over the lagoon trying to pick up clues on the original source of the algae and the impact on the reef but we continually saw that the reef and other habitats here were generally in broad health, despite the slimy covering.  Then the boat engines cut.  The captain had underestimated the amount of running around we were going to do and the boat’s fuel tank was empty.  The boat started to drift northwards along the lagoon parallel to the beach.  Fortunately when the power was lost, the boat was less than thirty metres from the shore, and given our captain was local he spotted a friend on the beach.  It happened to be a Sunday and the beach was busy enough.  Although he spoke in Creole, we got the Captain’s drift; he was asking his friend to fetch some more fuel from a nearby resort.  As in many places the water was shallow and our helper splashed out with some more outboard motor fuel in a large water bottle.  Our captain gave him a grubby rupee note and then looked at the water bottle – he looked at us all in the boat waiting for him to start again and smiled.  He handed the bottle to me and reached below the outboard motor to release the fuel intake pipe.  He dipped it in the open bottle, then fired up the outboard.  He took back the bottle and settled it on the seat beside him then with a huge grin on his face recommenced the trip.